Thursday, October 24, 2013

Faffing around Furniture

You know, it's the weirdest thing, but I've come to realize that there's one piece of furniture we always overlook and ignore, but when I think about it, plays a very important role in... I don't know how to describe it better, in sorting out life. The humble desk. 

We buy the beds and the cupboards, then the sofas and coffee tables, a dining set, display cases and sideboards, kitchen cabinets, shoeracks, and then if there's place left over, a desk. 

I think we don't take seriously enough the role rooms and items play in organizing our minds. 
Beds are private places, locked away inside. Cupboards absorb messes, store, and close.  Bookshelves call out your intellectualism. The table's to eat, the coffee table's to socialize. The TV dominates the room, the mind, and time, and stops anything else from happening. 

But my personal favorite is the desk. It's also a private place, but one where your mind is awake, active, and free. You can read, draw, listen to music, play games, work, nap, snack, socialize virtually, and just think. Plan your travels and sort your memories. Organize your life. What's on your desk at any point of time is a snapshot into your mind and psyche. Cameras, cards, disks, accessories. A diary, a sketchpad. A keyboard and mouse. A tablet. Phones. Hobby stuff. Glue, paper, wire, tools. Paint. A poster in front, a to-do-list tacked to a board on the side, a dustbin below. A coffee / water / coke. 

These are all things you do, you love, and cherish time on. Things that give you something, do something, take you somewhere. 
The desk is an active space, probably the most versatile, positive, active space in the house. I miss having this space around. If you don't have a workspace like this set aside somewhere, all the time you spend in the house will feel... wasted, somehow. Unproductive. You'll be itching to get up and go out, do something. You'll be confused, lost, disorganized, mired in ennui. You'll turn into a couch potato, an alcoholic, a  socialite, anything that takes up the time and energy you don't know how to work off. 

Damn, I need a bigger house. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Looking at the other side

Note - this post is likely to depress you

A few days back, a friend of mine posted a (probably by now a much-shared) link to a series of photos a Chinese tourist took in Varanasi, of corpses abandoned in the river and washed up on the shore. His tone was one of (in my opinion, slightly gleeful) horror at what looks like the rejected props from a Walking Dead episode coexisting with daily life, which goes on like it's nothing out of the ordinary. 
Other than the tone taken, I don't really disagree. Yes, these are corpses, the decaying remains of what was once human beings, abandoned and left to rot like refuse in a public river, with nobody to lay them properly to rest, to clean up, to even bat an eyelid. 

Nobody's disturbed because this is daily life. This is how things are. The only people who get disturbed and upset are the people coming from places where their society has the time, the resources, and the inclination to handle corpse disposal properly. 
On the opposite end of the spectrum, but in a similar way, we get shocked when we go to a first-world country and find we can drink the water coming directly from the taps, no filter, no UV, no boiling. 
The truth is, there is no regard for human life here. nobody cares when you're alive, why would they care about your corpse? 

Think about poor Varanasi's history. For centuries, the city has lived under the plague-ridden burden of perception that it is somehow spiritually elevated, that a death here is different, more meaningful in some way for the one dying. Freedom from reincarnation? Spiritual upliftment and enlightenment? Privations in this life rewarded in the next? 
It's meant a flood of people with nothing left but death, a flood of people hungry for soul-cleansing, a flood of people trying to understand something of what's happening. The tourist money keeps the economy running briskly, but the concept of a just reward in an afterlife has left little motivation to improve this one. 

There is no enlightenment here, no spiritual reward. It's something we make up, desperately, to somehow justify the appalling conditions we see, the misery, poverty, deprivation. People don't choose to be poor for a spiritual reward, they are poor because they had no choice, and every waking moment they fight it. There is no alternative. 
Be, or die. 

That's why the tourists flock here, too. They cannot imagine a life that is so bad, yet continues to be lived. They're convinced there's some great secret behind it all, something that we know and they don't, something that justifies this horror. Some mysterious philosophy of rebirth, reincarnation cycles, karma, an understanding of the nature of reality that they haven't got yet. Some knowledge that lets us continue to live in this place, walk these streets, where corpses wash up on the banks and lie putrefying in the sun. 

Chill, guys, there's no great secret. Step back and look at the big picture. We live because the alternative is to die. We live here because there are a thousand million little threads that tie us here, because there is nowhere else to go. 
The native will keep the farce going. The yogis and godmen will speak about this great secret in hints and allusions, translated into the guides' commentaries, the documentaries, the book and the stories. 

We live, and we die. There is nothing after, but as long as people believe there is, the money keeps coming, the stories keep perpetuating, the society keeps functioning. 
We make the tools we need to survive, and faith and hope are just some of those tools. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Crime, Punishment and Belief

It just occurred to me, the whole concept of the death penalty works if the condemned - and the accused, the potential perpetrators - believe in an afterlife of eternal damnation, believe that the human judge on this side mirrors the eventual judgement they will receive and the following punishment. 

If you believe that what you are doing is wrong, wrong enough to warrant an eternity of the lake of fire, and the lake of fire exists and is waiting, and you will be caught, and when you are hung, God will send you to hell to forever burn... you will be deterred. You'll think twice. 

If you think you won't be caught - 
If caught, you think you can evade punishment - 
If punished, the punishment is too light - especially if the roof and regular meals of prison looks attractive compared to whatever brutal hell you are already living in - 
If the maximum punishment is given, you don't believe in God or hell - 
Or if you believe his judgement will be different from society's - 

The the entire concept of punishment to act as a deterrent to crime breaks down. It becomes an escape, a start-over. A reward. An irritant. Fame and glamour. Not the stuff that will ever stop crime. 

What's an acceptable alternative? 
Honestly, I don't know. It's not that easy. For the victim of the crimes, it's easy to like increasing brutality, barbaric punishments. Taliban-esque. Make the immediate, visible results of a crime seen to all, the thieves without hands to make other thieves think a thousand times. But this will make societies increasingly brutal. The chances of an innocent caught in the machine. It also needs a enforcement and judicial system that's fast, efficient, and accurate. 

Maybe humanity's just too big to govern effectively now. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Drugs are a necessity... a socio-evolutionary regulator. 

Think about it. 
In any given situation, if one person gains a slight advantage over others, he will attempt to further that advantage. Like wishing for three more wishes as your third wish.
And if he has an advantage already, he will succeed. The gap widens.
Over time, one person will have all the resources, while the rest have none.
As a result, this person will have the capability to continue to hold all the resources, while the rest continue to starve.
And what happens when you have no resources? You can't have kids. Either you can't afford them, or raise them properly, or save them in dire situations.
Genetic diversity of a society starts to become completely skewed towards the one guy. Or girl, it doesn't matter.

And this is not a good thing. 

But, if there were something else that becomes accessible as a result of having all (or a lot of) resources - like money - something expensive, hard to get, but that would make you feel good, that you desire - you would try to get it. And you would succeed.

Something that others couldn't take away from them, and they could stop them if they tried. 

Something like...  a gateway drug. That leads to the harder, more dangerous stuff.

The resourceless, the impoverished, can't afford it. Only they can.

And once they're addicted, it eats away all their resources and kills them.
Balance is restored.

If you have nothing, it's just a waiting game. The person who has everything also has, inevitably, something that will destroy him.
Fast cars. Alcohol. Venereal disease. Drugs. Thrill-chasing. Fights. 

All you have to do is make sure it doesn't get you as well, accidentally.

Self-control is the greatest weapon you have, the hardest to manage and the easiest to use. 
Everything else is working with the universe to make sure genes continue to proliferate. You, the self, the consciousness, the mind inside that meat bag whose sole purpose is to act as a life-supporting vehicle for your genetic code, is an accidental, happy, short-lived coincidence. 

Enjoy it. 
Don't throw it away. 
Don't be a pawn of the Universe, a statistic, a variable like trillions of others in the great dance of life, a cog in a machine. 
Be yourself.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Do you really want to live forever?

Thought Experiment. 
Medical science finally gets telomere-repairing gene therapy right, and we all can now live till age 500+, in perfectly healthy bodies. What happens to the world?

Step One: Population Bomb. Natural death rate will fall to zero, and given that everyone's fit and healthy, and likely to remain so for a long time, children being born will go through the roof. And their children. And their children. For over 20 generations, and let's not forget the original parents are still breeding. Exponentially explosive growth doesn't remotely cover it, this shit is nuclear. 
"They won't be that stupid", you say? Maybe the countries and populations with easy, affordable access to birth control won't, but that's only the upper layers of first-world countries and the very narrow upper layers of the rest, or in other words, around 1-5% of the population. For the rest, it's literally bang, and boom. 

Step Two: Resources Vanish. In less than a generation, we'll be hellishly overcrowded. It's not just a case of people having 1-2 kids in their prime; their prime is now nearly infinite. They can keep earning for decades, they think, so it;s a new generation every few years. Jobs, education, space, food, and water become scarcer and scarcer. 

Step Three: Economies of Scale. With family sizes exploding, and each generation competing with forefathers and ancestors for the same place in the sun, the individual family unit will be too inefficient; there'll be a movement into joint families, then commune-style setups. 

Step Four: Total War. With the economies of scale in place, each community or extended family unit is an effective, organized force, with its own supply chains and specialist systems. What used to be bad blood and feuds, will have the potential to become all-out battles, especially if the prize is twice the living space and resources up for grabs. And with that many people around, human life will look cheap. 

Step Five. The Recession. As life becomes more and more brutal - and we're still talking about a time maybe a hundred years ahead - people will start realizing that a controlled approach is the only way this will work. And since children are no longer the means for you to control your resources and wealth over time - you can do it yourself - they'll lose all meaning and just take on nuisance value. Infanticide, indoctrination, slavery. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world...
The more developed countries will see the spectre of a population bomb sweeping out from Africa, Asia and consuming everything in its path. If they can hold themselves together for even a generation, the enemy will have starved himself into a non-threat, and in two generations, will be a collapsed, shattered economy - ripe for the plucking. Then will begin the real horror of systematic invasions, genocides, exterminations. They might be holding themselves together, but they're still bursting at the seams, and the need the oil, water, farmland. 

A first thought that comes to mind is that ecology will be devastated, but that may not happen. Societies crumbling under the weight of their populations will have access barely to an industrial-age technology, while the more developed will be forced into long-term, ecologically sustainable green tech - after all, they're still going to be around, so anything that turns bad in 50, 100 years will not be wanted. And nations that are sparsely populated but technologically developed will have a huge headstart in this. As long as they can repel the raiders. 
Don;t confuse this with eco-friendliness, though. If there's something that can be harvested with no long-term impact - thought it might wipe out entire species - it will happen. 

So there's likely to be a massive expansion into oceans, space, and underground, to open up new areas for expansion and maintain a technological edge, at least in the first world... and then a few centuries of fighting to keep those from falling into the hands of the starving millions. 

And this is something straight from Larry Niven - with a longer life, will people be more careful? Take fewer risks? Or will the ravaged world they now live in, allow the luxury of a low-risk life? 

Preservation through Overtaxation
Given the catastrophic fallout, the drug is not likely to be available easily. Very restricted, very high-priced. So obtained only by the very few - who then continue to hang tightly to their positions of wealth and power. 
Very strong urge to build long-lasting structures to maintain the status quo. Strong opposition to any kind of systemic change. 
Extend this to political power positions, and you see not just Dictator-for-life, but for several of his subject's lifetimes. Within a lifetime, revolutions will become impossible, and he will become a living god within his indestructible castle. 

So will begin the era of assassinations, political games, and power plays between the long-lived players. 

Who else will have access? The ones who took it illegally. It's going to be a very, very expensive drug. And the criminal syndicates and families will become unshakeable. 

End result - 
Warlords, tyrants, politicos, and kingpins - and merchant princes - living in a unchanging, stagnant world, full of ignorant serfs, assassins, starving slaves, destroyed biodiversity... 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Message is the Medical Medium

Was reading an interesting article about exocommunications. Started a train of thought - we assume that aliens will want to communicate using some kind of a language. Speech, sound, symbolism. Pictures. Mathematics. 
And they will come in person, holding their placards and speaking through mikes, or telepathically, or via stylistic dance and sign language, or broadcasting from a transmitter in orbit or somewhere in the system via radio / laser pulse. 

How ethnocentric is that?

The're alien. We can't speak to dolphins and dogs. We can barely communicate with chimps. 
We know nothing about them, what they breathe, how many legs they have, are they carbon-based, silicon-based, liquid metal, supercooled helium.

Here's what I think. They're already trying to talk to us. We just don't see it as communications at all. 

Here's the alien civilization, studying us from far, far away.  
They see this planet. 
There's... something on it, something that replicates and evolves, adapts to environment, interacts with others. This something has developed a language, a means of communication. It has a memory and a population spread in billions across the globe, just beginning to venture into space. 

So they send a message, in a form and format suited to this life-form. Maybe they send several variations, for the several variations of the life-form, if they have difficulty in telling which is the dominant one. 
The message's content may not be immediately understandable, but it sees that the life-forms are interacting with it, responding to it. 

The dominant life-form, as defined by an ability to learn from experience, adapt to environment, interact and grow and evolve, and develop a sophisticated support system to sustain itself - this defines DNA, doesn't it? 
Our bodies are just the vehicles that allow it to propagate. 
So here comes the message, in the form of protein chains, a 4-character code from space that interacts with the double helix of code in protein molecules that dominates the planet. 
It enters the support system - our bodies - and interfaces with the DNA. Sometimes it just appends; sometimes it edits, changes. The DNA responds. Sometimes directly, sometimes via manipulation of its support systems, sometimes from outside the support system altogether. 
We call the message viruses, and we call the interaction disease. 
Every time we create an antiviral, we're sending a message. Every time a disease evolves, it's responding. 
A conversation has been underway for thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years. 

We're just making the simple ethnocentric mistake of assuming that when we think about 'us', its the flesh and blood body carrying a brain that defines our identity. We're just a walking lump of code inside an organic machine, and it's our code that's been doing the talking.

We might already be a part of a galactic civilization, and we'll never know. 

Parenting terrifying. Fucking piss-yourself, go-into-shock terrifying. 

It's more frightening than anything you've ever done, ever read / seen / heard about, ever had any nightmares about or imagined. 
Everything you are.
Everything you own.
Everything you know.
Everything you've achieved. 
Everyone you love. 
Is all irrelevant now. It's second place to this new life you've made. All this is second place to, and made irrelevant by, this creature in your arms. 
This tiny, fragile, vulnerable little life. 

She's going to be that way for the next two decades, and even after that, you still can't relax. Anything can go wrong. Anything can happen. 
It's like you've liquidated everything in your life in preparation for some great journey, like an escape from a war-torn country. You've put it all into, say, a single diamond that you've swallowed before you ran, and you now keep secret to prevent being gutted for. 
That's nothing compared to this. 

And in the deep night in your head when you can't sleep, in the screaming headlines of the morning paper, the brief hysterical chatter of the nation as you surf channels, the conversations at the bus stop, in your RSS and your social networks, lies the stuff of nightmares, a blank-faced Elder God that mindlessly picks up and devours the everything in your life, casual, unthinking. You can only watch helplessly as any one of a thousand fates hangs over her head. 
Everything is in one place, and it is so.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Not If. When.

I read The Lord Of The Flies on a long-distance bus more than a decade ago. I finished it in a few hours, and spent the rest (mostly) staring out of the window, looking at the dusty roads, the trucks, villages where shiny new DTH dishes and motorcycles coexisted with sagging power lines and open, stinking gutters. Even then, I had that sense - that something was going wrong, somewhere. 
I can't watch the news anymore. I can't watch even a few seconds of soaps while flipping channels. The newspaper comes and goes. 
Because whenever I see any of these, I remember those villages, those small towns. I remember the snarl of a million wires stealing power from poles, flies buzzing, snarled traffic on broken roads while people sat around and watched bright, colorful fantasies on screens, shopped for their knockoffs and preened. 

It's all coming down. 

It was a microcosm then, and it's everywhere now. 
I look away because I know I can't handle the rage, the dark redness that comes up again and again, more and more frequently these days. One day I'll look too long, and something will break, and then it'll be all over. For me, for them, for you. 

Cows and dogs and pigs and rats. Pigeons and crows. The squirrels and sparrows are all dead now, choked in the poison air and the tainted water. 

We stumble around in the little worlds we build around us, made of screens and paper and gossip and aspirations. The water is rising, and it stinks, but we mustn't look down, oh no. We have our phones and TVs and movies and soaps, we have our outrage and air-conditioning and our 'spirit' and cricket, and the gods we make, and the lies we eat. And that's the way it's going to be, while the water rises over our legs, our bodies, our mouths, and then we'll hold our breath, because though we can;t eat the lies anymore we can't breathe either, and then we'll die, and sink down into the muck, quiet at last. Maybe the water will dry up later, and something will grow. Or maybe it'll just fill with the blind white toothed worms and maggots, our legacy. 
It doesn't matter. 

You always think it won't happen to you, that you're not like that, not like them, no, you're smarter, you take care of yourself and yours, and what you see today if you look too long is the result of a dozen channels starving for content and replaying ad nauseum, a hundred newspapers and magazines and movies and morchas finding a popular subject and milking it till it's dead, that this is just a biased sample and not actually all true. Even as the similarities grow, you keep finding the differences, the tinier and tinier pointers that say this isn't you, you're not like that. 
Then... it does happen, and then it's too late. 

And look around. It's a matter of time. 
It's not if it happens. 
It's when. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A single page

As part of a  C E N S O R E D  process, I was quickly scribbling down a brief history of where I've worked - names, places, designation, duration, salary, etc. I have most of it scanned and ready, so didn't take too long... but somewhere, that page started getting heavy

It carried over a decade of my life - why wouldn't it feel heavy? Every figure, every word on that page came with days, weeks, months worth of history. The salary negotiations. The resignation dates. The pitifully short breaks between jobs. The names of reporting managers - good ones, bad ones. Months that gave up years' worth of excitement, fun, learning, hard work, heartbreak, drama, action. Years that simply faded away into the ennui of repetition and and boredom and left me with a few months worth of stuff happening. 

Every shift was literally the high point of the year - the reasons that would lead me to quit, the bitter, voluble daru sessions that preceded it, frustrations coming to a head, the interviews, the final offers, the quitting, the new places and people, the learning curve... 

It's just in the last few years that Life has had more to add and contribute than Work. More stuff has happened outside the Office than inside - and I remember the times when the Ofiice was literally all there was, and home was a place to crash and drink, and weekends were for catching up on sleep, getting smashed, recovering from hangovers, or putting in overtime. And maybe the occasional movie. There was no TV, no gaming, no interior deco, no family stuff, no quality time. 

There was, however, the ubiquitous, all-powerful cig break, the glue and the cornerstone of Office life and growth. There were the industry parties and the outbounds. All your friends worked where you did, and traveled together, so there was no 'commute', just extended timepass. Bosses could be angels or demons, but you always had less to worry about than them, more spare time than them, no matter what they did. Little things would be HUGE - road trips for a special tea or dhaba or snack. A weekend trek. A visit home. They'd sustain you for weeks
And the learning curve. Everything was new. The admin staff, the networks, reports, presentations, fieldwork, data entry, cold calls, warehouses... it was all a mysterious new world filled with drama, excitement, and above all, something new to learn every day. 

Then you shifted, and suddenly your world fractured into new and old. Then into Work and Personal. Then Work, Personal, Family, Friends, and the To-Do List. You feel sliced thin now, spread out over too many shifting textures floating on an unstable sea, pulling together the drifting loose barrels under your raft. It's more stable, bigger, but... there's something missing. Like a stage-one rocket, the first few career years drove you howling into space, and now, drifting in the silence, you miss that drive. It consumed you, that pillar of fire, changed you, took you into a place you never thought you would reach... but sometimes you wonder if the journey cost you the destination. 

It's strange how all that can fit on one page. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Drawing to a close

Think of any RTS game with a resource-management focus you've played - Sins of a Solar Empire, the Command and Conquer series, even War Commander on Facebook. In a nutshell, you have a factory whose only purpose is to churn out resources, that allow you to build stronger, faster, more destructive tanks, with which you can destroy the enemy base, win that level and move up to the next. 
99% of humanity is that factory, working 9-to-5 jobs to earn money that they can spend on technology, powering the tech economy and making money available for research into better technologies - miniaturization, more evolved computing, faster processing, larger storage, nanotech, more intelligent programs... all of which will ultimately result in the creation of AI, of the Singularity. 

When that happens, humanity will have achieved its purpose. Mathematics created physics, physics created chemistry, chemistry created biology, biology created genetics, genetics created intelligence and self-awareness, which will create the next phase. 
But when that happens, what happens to us? What happens to the human race still in their 9-to-5 jobs, still buying, still playing, still living? 

What happens to the Stage 1 factory, when you've progressed to Stage 2? It may have been a collection of pixels and code, but it held a temporary existence in the form of assigned meaning - we thought it was a factory, so it existed as one, perception creating existence, for the duration of Stage 1. Now, the pixels have dissolved, the code has wiped, but the idea of that Stage 1 factory - where does that go? 

Is there some digital limbo filled with those ideas, those pixel factories churning our meaningless resources ad infinitum? A closed loop in the space-time continuum made of memory? A dimly remembered dream fading more and more each day until one day, you forget... and its as if it had never been. 

The dream that is Humanity is coming close to the Waking. A vastly superior intelligence, a new form of life, is beginning to coalesce, and in a few decades it will come to exist. A new stage of evolution, of Life, will start. And our time will dim, fade, and slowly disappear as if we had never been... except as a vaguely remembered idea in Stage 10, which would never have been reached without the Stage 1 factory. And this is something that cannot be stopped. 

The car's broken through the guardrails, and is sailing off the edge of the cliff... 

There's nothing more that we can do now, short of civilizational suicide... and we're too diverse, too independent, too powerful to do that. Our own competence will be why we ended. 
And that's the answer to the Fermi Paradox.